COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Eight members of the so-called 'felony lane gang' have been arrested and charged in the Midlands, Sheriff Leon Lott, SLED and several area police chiefs announced Tuesday morning.
The 'felony lane gang' is a group of several men and women from Florida who were allegedly breaking into vehicles, stealing checks, identification, credit cards, and debit cards, and then taking money from the victims' accounts using the far drive-through lane of various area banks.
Lott said the suspects used the far lane, or 'felony lane,' as coined by the bank industry, so that bank employees would not see they were wearing wigs and costumes.
Members of the 'felony lane gang' have been traveling throughout the United States for over 10 years breaking into vehicles, defrauding banks and victimizing people, the sheriff said.
"It's kind of like a terrorist group, there are different cells that will go to different parts of the United States," said Lott. "They operate throughout the country. You talk to various bank investigators, various fraud investigators, they'll tell you the 'felony lane gang' is one of the number one problems that they got."
All of the suspects are from Florida. They have been extradited to Richland County to answer to various charges. Lott said he's going to try to prosecute them as a group.
HOW IT WORKS
The male ring leaders of the group are mainly from the Ft. Lauderdale and Miami areas, Lott said. They recruit females from Orlando area who are responsible for cashing stolen checks for a small percentage of the profits, which is normally10 percent. The sheriff said most of the females have past convictions of prostitution.
As the group arrives in the targeted area, the men immediately start breaking into cars looking for pocket books, checks, drivers licenses and credit cards, Lott said. They target vehicles at health clubs, tanning salons, amusement parks, and sporting events – specifically looking for vehicles where wallets are left in plain site.
Once the men have broken into numerous vehicles, they start molding the female gang members to look like the stolen victim's identity; coloring their hair, purchasing wigs, and wearing large sun glasses, Lott said.
The gang members then transport the females to the local banks where they will present the victim's driver's license and a stolen 2nd party check.
Fraud investigators say the gang would use the farthest lane out in the drive thru, which is what they now call the felony lane.
"If you're right there, this close to the teller at the first lane, they might be able to tell you have a wig on or you don't match the I.D. But if you're in that far lane, and you've got more cars in between you, you might not pay as much attention," said Lott.
Lott said investigators believe the gang was generating over $12,000 a day while cashing stolen checks.
"You're looking at car break-ins that most would look at as not a serious crime but as you start to look at and calculate the amount of money, the amount of damages people have suffered, it does start to effect the quality of life," said Columbia Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago.
THE TASK FORCE
Area law enforcement agencies believe the first cases in the Midlands occurred in the Lexington area in 2012 after several car break-ins were reported.
At that point, area banks started noticing an increase in fraudulent activity and alerted law enforcement. That's when the agencies formed a "task force" between jurisdictions and bank fraud investigators to look into the activity, Lott said.
Bank fraud investigators started putting the pieces together after noticing the stolen funds were being deposited into some of the 'felony lane gang' members' local accounts.
The task force will continue to investigate the incidents surrounding the group.